Multiculturalism steps aside for advertising on SBS


Inspector RexSBS TV's Subtitling Unit is about to lose one third of its staff. The subtitlers were at the very heart of SBS when it was set up as a multicultural broadcaster 30 years ago. Its output is regarded by many as equal to the world's best. One staff member said recently, 'if the subtitlers were a football team, they would be regarded as a national treasure and promoted, marketed and funded accordingly. Instead, it will now be the victim of a rationalisation to save a few dollars.' 

Of course excellence alone does not justify the cost of maintaining subtitling at SBS. It's perfectly valid for SBS management to jettison its subtitling unit if it determines that SBS is fundamentally no longer a multicultural broadcaster and has its charter amended accordingly. It's up to SBS management to come clean on its current purpose, and to suffer whatever consequences there may be if its stated purpose is not justifiable for a standalone public broadcaster. That could mean abolition, or perhaps being rolled into the ABC.

SBS has carried advertising for around a decade, and it appears that commercial imperatives have taken priority over its original purpose of providing content that reflects and promotes Australia's multicultural society. Most foreign language programs were moved out of prime time to make way for crowd pleasers such as Mythbusters and Top Gear (now lost to Channel 9). The German language Inspector Rex, now in recess, is the only foreign language program considered popular enough for scheduling in prime time.

The architect of the commercialisation of SBS is Shaun Brown who, as head of Television New Zealand, was criticised by then prime minister Helen Clark as being overly driven by ratings. But in a curious and encouraging move last month, he stated to Senate Estimates that he does indeed see an important role for SBS as a multicultural broadcaster. He declared that the reliance of ethnic Australians on overseas foreign media is emerging as a threat to Australia's social cohesion.

He gave the example of last year's violence against Indian students. Many members of the local Indian community bypassed coverage in Australian media outlets, and instead used the internet and satellite television to access the Indian media, which was widely regarded as sensationalist in its treatment of the events.

Brown was obviously doing his job in attempting to secure extra government funding for SBS. But he deserves credit for identifying an important role for SBS as a multicultural broadcaster that recognises the needs of the Australian community in 2010. It's up to him to demonstrate that he is genuine, and that he regards fostering Australia's social cohesion as a priority over attracting advertising revenue.

However both Brown and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy need to accept that it is unlikely there will be much compatibility between such social and commercial aspirations for SBS. It is hard to make money out of being socially responsible. The consequence of this is that they will need to choose between social and commercial imperatives. If they don't know it already, they will discover that a fundamentally commercial public broadcaster is an oxymoron.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, SBS, subtitling unit, stephen conroy, Shaun Brown, commercialisation



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Existing comments

Tragically for the wonderful broadcaster that SBS was, we are witnessing what inevitably happens when public broadcasters think they can be a little bit commercial.

To date, the ABC has been saved from a fate similar to SBS because politicians know there is a strong and active organisation to defend it. But commercialisation is sneaking into the ABC too, just as it did initially into SBS by stealth.

The survival of the ABC as an independent public broadcaster that can report without fear or favour is crucial - for Australian culture, the integrity of information the general community receives, the platform for public debate the ABC provides, and its scrutiny of governments and other powerful bodies.

With insufficient resources, Friends of the ABC is struggling to continue its work to maintain the ABC as an independent broadcaster.

Please consider supporting Friends of the ABC by joining and/or donating. Phone 9682 0073

Glenys Stradijot - Friends of the ABC (Vic) | 22 June 2010  

As a former SBS employee, I took real exception to this article. Although Shaun Brown might have led the push for in-program advertising at SBS, introduced in early 2007, he is hardly an "architect of commercialisation" - SBS has had advertisements between programs since 1990. SBS is not a standalone public broadcaster any more (it has not been for some time), because previous Government funding cuts meant it couldn't be. It is openly partly Government-funded and partly commercially-funded - and in the wake of further funding cuts last year, it has had no choice but to cut costs wherever possible.

It IS sad that the subtitling team is facing staff cuts, but the fact remains there are people employed full-time on the subtitling team who do not work full-time as subtitlers. Many actually work much of the time preparing closed captions, for which you don't have to be a qualified subtitler - on the requisite salary - to do. Job cuts will always be a very unpopular issue for SBS but people should get the facts straight before immediately condemning everything that happens at SBS and simultaneously suggesting SBS should merge with ABC (how many job cuts would happen then?!).

Kate Hill | 22 June 2010  

Unfortunately, I feel that the author takes a somewhat narrow, old-fashioned view of multiculturalism and the purpose of SBS as well in this article. If multiculturalism still means "non-English speaking" then, sure, SBS is no longer serving the purpose that it once did. But if multiculturalism means showing the culturally and linguistically diverse face of Australia in 2010, then SBS does this better than ANY other network in Australia and possibly around the world. A merger with the whiter-than-white ABC would be a DISASTER, as the two networks still serve different purposes and cater for different audiences.

Many "public" broadcasters around the world follow the SBS funding model these days too - certainly in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Italy, Canada and America, many of the public broadcasters are both part-commercially funded and part-Government funded.

Caitlin O'Shea, Melbourne | 22 June 2010  

Yhanks for "Mcm Steps Aside". The reversion is particularly unwelcome at a time when the ABC seems to be sliding towrds the ruddy bland.

Give Julia 's office a week or two to settle, then take the appropriate advisor from her office to lunch.

Neville Hicks | 30 June 2010  

Shaun Brown is BAD for SBS. Helen Clark knows him better than anyone at SBS and she said it exactly as it is - Brown is preoccupied with making money and so far has destroyed SBS image and spirit. Commercials are annoying and most are not of high standard. SBS program schedule is increasingly filled with cheap content and SBS should send Brown packing for Channel 10 maybe?

Andreas Stubbs | 21 May 2011  

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